Thoughts on the future of executive coaching: 7 paths forward

David B. Peterson, PhD

Institute for Contemporary Leadership

It is quite possible that we entering a golden era for executive coaching. Leaders who face daunting complexity and constant change realize the value of a trusted advisor and coach to help them navigate this uncharted territory. At the same time that demand for talented coaches is growing, there are forces at play that suggest we are also on the cusp of radical disruption.

As things around us change faster, and change in new and different ways, coaches will need to evolve dramatically if they wish to thrive. Working harder and running faster will not work in the long run; we need a new paradigm, new perspectives, and a new playbook.

Coaching on the cusp of disruption

There are at least seven forces driving potential disruption in the field of executive coaching, essentially by offering better or cheaper alternatives to what coaches offer. In fact, the growing number of new coaches entering the field is already putting significant downward pressure on pricing. Key drivers of disruption include:

  1. Better self-directed learning skills. Leaders have seen how fast the business world is changing and how easy it is to become obsolete, so they recognize the need to take time and invest in their own development. They’re getting better at seeking feedback, trying new things, and reflecting on what they’re learning and how they need to change – the same kind of things that they might have sought from a coach in the past.
  2. Everyone’s a coach. Leaders can turn to their peers, their manager, HR, their friends and colleagues – many of whom are trained in coaching skills — to get advice and counsel.
  3. Artificial intelligence. AI is clearly driving disruption in almost every industry, or will be soon. Coaching is no exception.
  4. VR/AR. Virtual or augmented reality will enable leaders to get risk-free exposure to a wide range of novel, challenging situations, and experiment with new behaviors to see what works. Combine with AI and other technologies, they’ll access a virtual coach to enhance their learning.
  5. Physiological monitoring and real-time feedback. Biometrics, wearables, and even insertables (yes!) will help leaders get immediate feedback on their stress levels (reminding them to breathe deep and relax) or even monitor how attentive or distracted their audience is in a team meeting or all-hands presentation, and suggest real-time tips for how to re-engage people. It’s not that far away…
  6. Performance-enhancing drugs. If a leader can take a pill to enhance their memory, make them smarter, give them more energy and endurance – all of these are on the horizon — coaches will have to do the same or find other ways to keep pace.
  7. Changing nature of leadership. Many coaches are experts on yesterday’s leadership challenges, and slow to get up to speed on the biggest current or emerging challenges. As the nature of leadership evolves more and more rapidly, coaches will have to excel at staying ahead of the curve.

Several of these trends are growing exponentially. It’s easy to compare things year over year and conclude that change is building slowly. But our brains are not wired to see things exponentially, so we are almost always surprised when the trend hits critical mass. Bam. So now is the time to prepare for disruption.

7 paths forward for executive coaches:  Preparing for the new, emergent future

If coaching is on the cusp of disruption in the face of exponential change, coaches need to prepare now to find exponentially better ways to add value to the leaders and organizations they work with. Waiting only makes it more difficult to keep up, so it’s wise to heed the words of Jack Welch, “Change before you have to.”

Here are seven things coaches can do to play the long game for maximum impact. Most of these require a new mindset and a willingness to constantly challenge our own assumptions.

  1. Stay ahead of the market and the competition by solving for clients’ most complex, difficult, and changing needs. Find clients dealing with the cutting-edge challenges now, and figure out how to help them. Let other coaches work on the easy, safe stuff and make sure you are stretching yourself to build new insights and capabilities.
  2. Get serious about “true professionalism.” It’s been easy for many coaches to make a living by being good coaches. Some even take advantage of clients by creating dependent relationships. Maister’s book[1] makes a strong case that putting clients needs first and continually finding new, better ways to add value (rather than coasting on our reputation) is the best way to thrive as competition increases and business needs shift.
  3. Cultivate deep insight and expertise into the art and science of how people grow and develop. In essence, coaches need to be experts in helping leaders learn faster and better, and find ways to make that learning more rewarding and fulfilling.
  4. Beyond just being better at helping people develop, coaches will have to find practical ways to help people totally transform and reinvent themselves. As business and organizational paradigms change overnight, it won’t be sufficient to help people learn new things, coaches will need to provide transformational experiences that lead to dramatically different ways of thinking, acting, and being.
  5. Given the dramatic changes ahead in technology and AI, the best coaches will embrace and leverage emerging technologies — faster than the pace of how leaders and competitors are adopting them.
  6. It won’t be enough for coaches to merely keep pace with all these changes, they will have to be role models of innovation, learning, adaptability. Some may actually become role models of reinvention, but at a minimum coaches will have to become extremely fast followers and adopters, setting the pace for their clients to follow.
  7. Finally, let’s acknowledge that even following these paths may not be enough. Each coach who wants to thrive needs to take the initiative to create their own path to the future.

As you read this, are you inspired or intimidated? It’s likely that some of you are dismissive, some are overwhelmed, some are engaged and invigorated. Whatever your response, the fundamental question remains:  What changes do you see coming and how will you prepare?

I’m an optimist – I believe we can do amazing things if we put our hearts and minds to it. And my intention in this blog is positive – to provoke thinking in how we can advance the practice of executive coaching to add greater value to clients, to organizations, to our colleagues, and to the world.

Future blogs will explore some of these disruptive forces and implications for leadership development. I’d love to hear your questions and thoughts on what would make these most useful.

dpeterson@contemporaryleadership.com

[1] David Maister (1999). True Professionalism.